One of the most important duties of being an ambassador is serving as a counsellor of sorts. When relations between two countries are on the rocks – or a president or prime minister says or does something another nation regards as hostile – the ambassador is often called on to ensure that any diplomatic fallout can be contained and the relationship itself can be repaired. Apparently Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, didn’t get the memo.
In an extraordinarily frank interview with Politico Europe this week, ambassador Sondland blasted the EU as an archaic, obstructionist, elitist European superstructure whose primary objective is to keep itself in business. The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, was “out of touch with reality,” he said. “They are off in a cloud, regulating to the heart's content, and regulating some things that don't even need to be regulated because they haven't even occurred yet, while stifling growth and innovation.” These are not exactly the words of a man whose orders include alleviating the considerable tensions between Washington and Brussels. In fact, they sound like a deliberate escalation of the conflict.
Sondland used his interview to outline a litany of grievances against the EU. On trade, he said, the US was getting the short end of the stick while the Europeans are “enjoying the benefits of a completely disproportionate relationship.” On the Iran nuclear deal, Brussels was “clinging” to the agreement in an attempt to cancel out Washington’s maximum pressure campaign against Tehran. On defence spending, European governments are more than happy to pour money into an EU military consortium, even as they skimp out on NATO. And on trying to make a more equitable, mutually beneficial partnership? Well, Washington’s man in Brussels says the EU simply isn’t interested in working with the Trump administration.
If you happen to be shocked by these undiplomatic words from an American diplomat, then you haven’t been paying much attention over the last several years. Sondland, after all, is Trump’s emissary for Europe at large, a president who hasn’t hidden his utter contempt for the EU and everything it stands for. Previous US presidents looked at the EU and saw an unwieldy and imperfect bureaucracy that should nonetheless be nurtured as a prime element of a rules-based international order. Trump looks at the EU and sees an elitist European cabal that was formed to exploit America’s generosity. This is the same man, after all, who congratulated the British people a day after a successful Brexit referendum. “I said this was going to happen, and I think that it’s a great thing,” the president beamed during his visit to Scotland. “Basically they [the UK] took back their country.”
Naturally, EU officials haven’t appreciated Trump’s description of the organisation as a trade foe. Last spring, after a particularly negative patch in the relationship, EU Council president Donald Tusk famously quipped that “with friends like that, who needs enemies.” After nearly two years of Trump, EU commissioners and European ministers remain befuddled by the 45th president’s antics. His unintelligible utterances, his topsy-turvy negotiating style, his shrill egotism, and his disrespect or ignorance of the EU as an institution are just too overwhelming for many European politicians to handle. They can’t comprehend why Trump is fixated on a £80bn ($101bn) trade deficit when total trade between the US and EU exceeded £800bn ($1.1trillion) last year. Donald Trump makes the George W. Bush years look like a walk in the park.
There is an equal amount of righteous indignation on the other side of the Atlantic. While trade is definitely a sticking point for this president, Trump and his national security advisers are just as angry and upset about Europe’s stance on other issues. The White House has made maximum sanctions pressure on Iran a principle component of its foreign policy. However, rather than working with Washington to push Tehran towards making a more iron-clad nuclear deal, Brussels is working on setting up alternative financial schemes to insulate European businesses from US sanctions. For the EU, which views the 2015 Iran deal as the best the world is going to get, trying to offset the US sanctions regime is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Washington, though, sees it as a purposeful affront – one more instance of ungrateful European leaders doing what they want, regardless of the sacrifices and goodwill America has made on behalf of the continent since World War II.
There will come a time – perhaps after Donald Trump has vacated the Oval Office – when relations between the Americans and Europeans go in a warmer direction. All relationships ebb and flow, and this is certainty not the first time a US administration and EU bureaucrats have tussled with one another. It won’t be the last either. Yet unless a global crisis brings the transatlantic community back into synch, a thaw seems unlikely in the immediate to medium term. The EU’s mission in the interim is to try to tread water until somebody new takes over the White House.